What Happened on Sunday Morning

The starting gun goes off at about 6:30 in the morning, and I am excited. It doesn’t take more than 5 seconds to get past the start line from where I stand in the start pen, and before I know it, I am in full stride, with the morning wind blowing in my face. All of us are running down Nicoll Highway and I feel good, with lots of energy in my legs and my breathing is stable. I remind myself that only 50 meters have passed, and that 9950 meters lie ahead.

My pre race routine has been largely contrived out of a series of past failures involving too little sleep, the wrong breakfast, the wrong methods of hydration and improper stretching. Today I am smarter; I wake up at 5 am with 7 hours of sleep in my veins and I pop two slices of banana walnut bread, before drinking a mixture of water and Pocari Sweat. The previous night had me icing my legs and massaging any sore spots. I also remind myself that this was my first race in a little over two years. How it got to that, I will elaborate on a few kilometres down the road. Now, back to the run.

There are a barrage of runners vying to get into good positions, overtaking, squeezing and jostling about the first one kilometre or so. No one seems to be settling down to their actual race pace, because I can see in the way they run that they’re straining pretty hard. Maybe it’s the adrenaline, maybe it’s the herd mentality. People don’t want to look like they’re losing out in any way. I keep my pace in check, looking at my watch and guessing what distance I’m at, what pace I’m running. I don’t have a GPS watch so I do all this with experience, measuring out stride and distance, and with reference to the occasional distance markers that pop out every kilometre.

Passing the national stadium and across the bridge to marina barrage had me at 3km with a timing of 12:09. This is too fast, it seems, for I am going at just a little over four minutes per kilometre. Put this into a 2.4km context and you’ll get roughly 9:40. My mind tells me to slow down, but my body feels totally fine. I’m still maintaining a good breathing tempo, and the best part was, I wasn’t even trying that hard. I felt like there were tougher sections of the race still to come.

At 4km my timing was 16:12, still a hair above 4 minutes per kilometre but a good indication that I was still fine was the fact that I bothered checking my watch for the pace. I turned my head and looked at the view to my right, the sun slowly making its way above the horizon as it lit up the Singapore skyline which reflected itself off the Singapore river. Everything was in various shades of blue. The foliage on the left gave off a pleasant scent that was almost sweet, yet strangely damp. What a privilege it is to run.

5 kilometres passed in 20:10, and to my pleasant surprise I was still overtaking people. I figured that if I ran faster for the second half of the run, that I could potentially go under forty minutes. I struggled with that mindset, debating silently on whether I should (literally) make a run for it. It seems strange that I would even consider not running faster, because to the observer it’s very easy to say “Just run faster lah, what’s the harm?” But I know after some experience that running fast too early in the race can incur the greatest of harms. You could slow down at the end, be overtaken by a few runners and end your race disastrously. Or worst, you could hit the wall altogether and start walking. I had already ignored 2 water points and overtaken some of the more overzealous runners who suddenly felt like they needed a drink, all just to keep to my pace. I was finally running across Marina Barrage, towards Gardens by the Bay. I gave speeding up some thought, keeping my eye on the runner in front of me. He was a bearded guy and breathing intensely but keeping a good pace. Most of the runners fade out around here, but this guy was a fighter, not allowing me to overtake him as we proceeded on our mid-race jostle. I had half a mind to start a conversation but I decided that there were better places for that. We took turns leading (it sounds like a dance but feels nothing like it, mainly because I can’t really dance) and eventually ended up shoulder to shoulder by 6km.

We passed the 6km mark and I looked at my watch. It said 23:58. I had sped up to go under the magic 4 minute per kilometre pace without even meaning for it, all because I was trying to chase this guy over the past kilometre. Both of us proceeded to overtake one female runner of African origin, and then a tall Caucasian male, before we hit the end of the garden and onto East Coast Parkway, parallel to the Helix Bridge and with Marina Bay Sands to my back. It was on this uphill that I passed the seven kilometre mark, and finally managed to shrug off the bearded guy. I don’t mean to frame him as a villain or anything, but there’s some satisfaction in saying goodbye to a guy who you’ve been trying to chase for a few kilometres on end.

But of course, it all came at a price. I didn’t check my timing at seven kilometres, and I was beginning to lose my running form. My breathing was harder and more irregular and I was grimacing. Basically, I was slowly dying. The only remedy for this sort of exhaustion would be to get to the finish line as soon as possible. Three kilometres left, and I told myself that I could do it, though through the pain it was hard to see a way this could end well.

As if on cue the Caucasian man I overtook earlier overtook me to my left. He had a manic look in his eyes, and with more than two kilometres to the finish line he was leaving everything he had on the roads. I followed him intensely at first but my breath soon got out of hand, and I slowed a little. I looked around desperately for the 8km mark, but there was none. I swung my arms harder and reached the water point ahead.

I grabbed a cup of water, and mustered all the previous experiences of drinking water whilst running to take a gratuitous sip, before pouring the rest of the water on my head. The water lapped my face and flowed down my chest like it does in seductive shampoo commercials though I looked neither fragrant, clean, nor seductive. I noticed that the Caucasian guy slowed down to grab a sip and so I ran right past him! Yes, this was my time to shrug him off.

But of course, that didn’t happen. He was back at it again, overtaking me from the right this time, and I got down to chasing him, staring at a particular spot on the back of his running singlet and listening to the sound of his pant legs rubbing against each other, a sound of pure inefficiency with the moist friction creating a squishy sound. I stared long and hard at his back, reducing this man into these two concepts of sight and sound and just chasing after them. 8 kilometres had passed and certainly there was no marker, so I had no choice but to wait for the 9 km sign.

The man suddenly sped up. The back of his singlet got further and further from me, the sound of his squishy pants fading. It didn’t look as if I could catch him. Then 9km passed by, and I glanced at my watch. 36:16. I had slowed down considerably, and calculating the odds of going under 40 minutes, I realised I had to run under 3:44 for the last kilometre.

I just couldn’t do it, I told myself. It was already quite a chore having to maintain a 4 minute per kilometre pace, and the fact that I hadn’t managed to do it by nine kilometres definitely meant something. Besides, I just came back from a yearlong injury, I couldn’t expect myself to suddenly surge to a good timing so quickly. I had to take it slow, take it slow, take it slow.

To be honest the past year had passed by in stages leading up to me running again. I rested for a good portion of 2015, and the first few months of 2016, not running at all and not doing any impact sports (not like I was good at any). Like I said, this was the first race I had participated in in 2 years. The last run was back in the end of June 2014, where I blazed to a personal best 10km and got injured soon after that. I did get the coveted under 40 minutes I was dying for, but I got injured for almost 2 years after that. It was not worth it. I tried to run, again and again, giving myself excuses, finding shortcuts that involved anything but giving my injury time. That was the first stage, that of denial. When I finally accepted that I couldn’t run without risking permanent injury came the second stage, that of pity. I stopped exercising and developed a hodgepodge of bad habits all in the name of resignation. Then at the start of this year I decided to reform myself. That was the third stage, where I started doing meaningful Calisthenic workouts and going for swims at least twice a week. I signed up for physio sessions once a fortnight and understood the limitations of my body. I felt fitter, fell into better habits and waited patiently for my body to heal. And heal it did. By March this year I started to run again, but besides running I had picked up all these lessons along the way about how to respect a body that needed it. To accept my body for its limitations and work with them. Besides running I had been doing other things like underwater jogging, strength workouts and some specialised stretching, all in the bid to get back to shape. It has worked so far, and I have learned that determination and discipline go beyond the time between putting on your running shoes and taking them off. For discipline to be effective, it has to become a lifestyle.

To put it simply, I am learning how to be a strong runner, and not just a fast one.

I looked as the Caucasian man ran further and further away and smiled to myself. It’s okay, I thought. Another day will come and another battle will be fought. We can lose some of our battles and still end up as whole people. Of course, that wasn’t exactly what I thought, but I rationalised that it would be ok to let this one go. I ran up the remaining section of the park connector, that led to a road. Around the bend to the final stretch, I looked at my watch and it barked back the timing: 38:30, one and a half minutes to 40:00. That was when all rationality flew out the window.

One minute and thirty seconds feels like forever when you’re in a planking position, or stuck in a boring class. But if you have the right amount of adrenaline and are sprinting for the finish, one and a half minutes collapses upon itself and feels like a much, much shorter amount of time. After turning into the final bend, something clicked and I just went for it. The cries of caution left my head. I suddenly believed that I could do this; that I could actually go under forty. The Caucasian man was a good forty meters in front of me by now, but that didn’t bother me in the least. I was in the zone, the crazy part of the workout where you’re in the last set but you somehow manage to squeeze out enough to produce a last minute sprint or in the dying seconds of a game where you score a miracle last minute goal. It was that sort of frenzied determination that ran through my veins. In many ways it’s better to chase than to lead, one being that you have a higher chance of realising your full potential.

I stared at the man from afar and crunched my face in pain. 40 meters became thirty, then became 20. I was running out of real estate before the finish line, but my legs gave it a final push. I stared intently at the back of his singlet. My calves burned with lactic acid and desire, and my lungs were on the edge of collapse. My heart felt light.

I overtook him with about 10 meters left, and crossed the finish line smiling.

That was about the same time I stopped the watch and looked at my timing.

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Shaking hands with all the relevant parties that crossed the finish line soon after, I left the finishers area feeling like I had just taken part in something very special. I think for most people who observe us running, the activity we partake in will always be just as it is, a run, one that we drag themselves up on lonely Sunday mornings to suffer in. For me, and for us runners it is very different. What happened on Sunday morning was the absolute triumph of patience and dedication that I observed in every last runner before and after me. There were determined faces; those that panted and strained and had the courage to go out hard. But more than just the running, for me this run was about the not running, about the time I had waited to finally get back on track and do the thing I loved, and feel good about it. I know I would have felt the same way whether I went under forty minutes or not, for what are numbers when placed beside the determination of the human heart? I would have been proud of myself for at least trying, proud for sticking it out with my broken bones.

In running you never ever get there, and you never ever win. Even if you win a race, there’s a faster version of yourself waiting somewhere down the road, and it’s always going to be up to you to chase him. If there’s anything that running has taught me it’s this: that human potential is limitless.

After collecting the complimentary finishers medal I had the privilege of watching the sun slowly rise from behind a dark blue horizon. It slowly edged its way out like a koi reaching its mouth up for floating fish food, emerging from murky waters with a hue of brilliant orange. It lit up the entire sky as more and more runners finished their race, almost like a well-timed grand finale. Soon the entire sky was a bright yellow, shining brilliantly, brightly, warming the earth and her sweaty human bodies, alive with running.

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The Nuts Continued Cracking

“I liked his smile. Whatever you felt sorry about faded away when you were with him.”

It was my mother, talking about her father-in-law. My grandfather.

Through the whole time the nuts were being popped into mouths. Packet drinks and water distributed, plastic straws poked into flimsy aluminium openings.

Our shirts were as plain as a blank page. What was there left to tell the world?

My grandmother played mahjong with a few close relatives. She looked at her tile and chucked it away with disgust. She took a new tile the next round, feeling it with her thumb. She chucked it away with disgust as well.

She was not the first to learn of his death.

“Eat some ngor hiang, we ordered specially from that stall in Serangoon.”

I liked his smile.

“Yes, Ah Yi. I tried already.”

“Offer your friends.” She pushed a plate of savoury rolls to my chest.

“They’re not here today.”

“Ok, fine. If you’re hungry please eat.”

Whatever you felt sorry about faded away when you were with him. Was this true?

Just yesterday, Grandmother found out about Ah Gong’s death as she was ladling soup at her stall at a school canteen.

“Don’t worry,” was her first response. “We finish selling all the fishball soup, then we go see him.”

What was there left to tell the world? He was already gone when the news reached her. Discharged from hospital, everyone thought he would at least persevere for the next few months. When all is said and done, the doctors in white coats can only give percentages. Death doesn’t need an excuse.

And so they sold the soup, her hawker assistant and her. She ladled carefully, served the soup with heart. It was her job. She was going to finish for the afternoon. Death was making its rounds, winding in and out of dark, spindly spaces, some lonely, many filled with immense outpourings of love and comfort. But one thing was for sure, death left her stall untouched that afternoon. Food was being served continuously, customers satisfied.

The nuts continued cracking. Popped into mouths.

“What are you working as?” Spoke a distant relative. I didn’t even know his name.

“I’m looking towards journalism.”

He smiled at me, a smile that reeked of the days to come. “Good luck. I hope you don’t drop out. I heard it’s tough.”

“I’ll be ok. I always find a way. I’m hopelessly lazy, but I find a way.”

“There’s only one way to find out is there?”

Funny that we talk about these things at a funeral, I thought.

But of course, funerals are the perfect time for this kind of talk.

My mother looked at my grandmother’s tiles and complimented them. She was on a way to a winning combination, a high scoring one too.

The fluorescent lights buzzed above.

My mother huddled alongside me. She looked on at grandma, as did I.

“That’s Ah Gong and Ah Ma. They weren’t the most agreeable couple. 51 years of marriage and they stuck together through it all.”

She smiled. I reached out to hold her hand.

“They were used to long silences, days at a time, living their lives, not exchanging a word.”

She squeezed my hand.

“But I’m afraid that this time, the silence will be too much.”

She looked on at the casket on our left. A moth flew past my line of vision, landing on the edge of the overhanging fluorescent lamp.

I observed the moth. The brown of its back was elegant and obviously furry, like little feathers. It hung on the edge, then inched closer, closer to the light. It was almost there.

“Ah boy, come here,” yelled my grandmother. Mother pushed me forward by placing her palm on the small of my back. I walked forth.

The fluorescent lights buzzed with maddening urgency.

“Which tile should I throw? I don’t want you to think, just pick.” I looked at the options: There was the north tile, and the three-bamboo tile, both being fresh on the board. This deep into the game, it was risky to discard either.

I paused to think. There was an increasing buzz from above. I placed my hand on her shoulder. It was frail, the bones almost hollow. She might have been meant for flight.

Eventually she discarded the three-bamboo tile. Nobody declared a win, and the game continued.

“You slow lah boy. Your grandfather sure scold me for thinking so long,” she chuckled. I let go of her shoulder.

Yesterday when Grandma finally saw his body her legs gave way. All of us had to hold her up. Time itself seemed to stand still. 51 years summarised in a moment of grief. Who would have expected anything less? Mother was right. The silence, when cast all at once, might just have been too great.

The peanuts were de-shelled, popped into mouths. “Who wants ngor hiang?” announced my aunt for the fourth time.

The moth crawled closer to the light.

The distant relative stepped up and piled some of the ngor hiang onto his plate. He doused them with copious amounts of sweet sauce, thoroughly lathering the rolls.

I stepped forward and took two rolls onto a plate, offering one to grandma. The distant relative was chomping luxuriantly, unapologetically, swallowing in quick succession, one roll followed by the next.
Grandma initially refused, but her trembling hand did eventually pick up a roll as the tiles were being shuffled.

She placed the ngor hiang in her mouth, absentmindedly, taking tentative chews. I watched her closely. The way she ate it gave the impression of tremendous strength, reluctance yet perseverance all at once. Where does one find such strength? Does time make one strong or does it just turn you numb?

There was a buzz from above, the wild crackling of sorts. I was the only one who noticed it.

The moth fell from the ceiling and landed softly on the ground, burnt and expired, motionless in its demise.

The nuts continued cracking, popped into mouths.


 

This is a fictional short story, inspired by real life events unrelated to my family.